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Fire

The Greens held a forum at Bellingen recently, to talk about the proposed Great Koala National Park on the Mid North Coast. Not surprisingly, the main focus is eliminating logging.
In addition and according to the Maclay Argus ‘more importantly‘, the National Parks Association CEO Kevin Evans and Senior Scientific Officer, Oisin Sweeney talked to Bellingen Shire Council about the proposal.

Responding to the publicity was the Nationals member for state seat of Oxley, Melinda Pavey MP, saying ” . . . the answer to concerns about mid north coast koalas does not involve converting more State Forest to National Park.” Rather ” . . . Mrs Pavey said that landholders know the National Park Estate is under-managed for key threatening processes of wild dogs, wildfire, scrub invasion and eucalypt decline – all causing koala habitat degradation.” And ‘ . . . Mrs Pavey said the community must look at the actual performance of the conservation estate in achieving real outcomes – just enlarging it does not automatically deliver good conservation outcomes.”

Mrs Pavey finished her PR with “ . . . I really do think it’s time for a mature, factual, science-based and constructive discussion about forestry, our forest estate and koalas – not just more land tenure changes.”

The NPA rejected Mrs Pavey’s suggestion that more national parks will not help koalas and called on the NSW Government to honor her call for  ‘a mature, factual, science-based discussion about forestry our forest estate and koalas’.

For those that do not support the state government’s management of public forests, irrespective of whom is managing it, any talk about facts and science is welcome, being better late than never.

Regrettably, It seems that both the conservation movement and the government still have some way to go.

 

Following up on the koala I spotted, it has now visited the same tree three times in as many weeks. Based on the pellet size it seems to be a youngish male, that appears to have taken over the home-range of an older male.Consequently, it seems likely that a female still occupies the area, broadly delineated within the black ellipse on the map above and she is the focus of the boy’s attention.

If one were to assume that each of the modeled koala activity areas on the map represented a koala, the number of koalas could be over estimated. So it is possible that most of the activity areas reflect just one male koala and 3 or 4 resident females.

 

As reported on the ABC this week, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC)” . . . has asked political leaders to actively consider using organic matter as fuel as an option to bolster the baseload energy supply.” CEFC chief executive, Paul McCartey, stressed that “forests or plantations used for the biomass had to be certified under a recognised brand as sustainable.”

Of course this includes all native forests certified under the less than adequate Australian Forestry Standard. So there was a less than supportive response from the conservation movement.

While open to the use of biomass from plantations, Greens’ forestry spokeswoman, Janet Rice said ” . . . There are just far too many potential holes in the legislation which would allow wood from native forests to be able to be used.” NCC chief executive Kate Smolski said ” . . . Instead of considering feeding what remains of our forests into power plants, all public native forests should be protected following the expiry of the RFAs and the industry transitioned to 100 per cent plantation.”

While this sounds all very well, the notion that native forests are protected under NPWS management is a tad unrealistic. Indeed, based on current information the volume of CO2 pumped annually into the atmosphere, from the NPWS’s counter-conservation burning, must be very close to forestry’s contribution. From that perspective and given the negative impacts most fire has on forests, alternative management methods are required.

In particular, reducing the wildfire hazard in regrowth forests through low impact biomass removal. So the biomass can be used for gasification and power production while the carbon, in the form of charcoal, can be sequestered in the soil. The regrowth forest management issue was raised at the recent forest forum, both by myself and a representative from East Gippland. So the message may get through, eventually.

Home-sized biomass gasification unit

Last week the NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton announced more funding for koalas indicating ” . . .This $10 million investment is in addition to the $2.5 million allocated for the creation in March 2016 of flora reserves totalling 120 square kilometres on the South Coast, run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to protect the last known local koala population.”

Last month NSW Legislative Council Greens member, Ms Dawn Walker asked the questions on notice pasted below, with answers due by 28 June. While the distribution of the $2.5 million logging subsidy is of interest. The NSW government’s response to the last question may be more useful.

1592 LANDS AND FORESTRY—MURRAH FLORA RESERVE—Ms Walker to ask the Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Regional Water, Minister for Trade and Industry representing the
Minister for Lands and Forestry, and Minister for Racing—
(1) In relation to the $2.5 million allocated from the NSW Environmental Trust to Forestry Corporation of NSW for a haulage subsidy to source alternative logs following the declaration of the Murrah Flora Reserves:
(a) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2015-16?
(b) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2016-17?
(2) Does the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 apply in State Forest flora reserves such as the Murrah Flora Reserves?

Early next month the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital will be hosting the second national koala conference. Among the 30 or so speakers at the conference is OE&H employee Chris Allen, giving a talk titled ‘Fire & habitat rehabilitation in the SE forests of NSW’.

While I expect the talk will focus on the OE&H’s claims it is protecting koalas from fire and planting trees on cleared land will help them. I also expect there will be no disagreement with these claims. On the fire issue, it is now a few weeks since the first burn was ignited in the Cuttagee catchment. During that time the scorched leaves on eucalyptus have turned brown as indicated below.


Also during this time the scorched needles on forest oaks have fully cured and also turned brown. Apart from some remaining large trees with black trunks, the whole area is now brown.

Prior to the fire, 30 years of litter, mostly from the oaks, provided soil cover that formed a thick mat, partially welded together through the actions of various fungi. Post the fire, the greatly reduced litter layer will be dry and loose. Coupled with the dead oaks, the outcome, come next summer, would seem to be ideal conditions for a rapidly moving wildfire.

Added to all this, yesterday and last night we received 100mm of rain, a large proportion of which was high intensity rainfall. While this issue could be taken up with local government, getting the OE&H to be a bit more accountable would help.

Sometime in the not too distant past, OE&H supporter the South East Region Conservation Alliance announced that its website will not be updated. No reasons are provided, but it’s safe to say that SERCA has not been an effective agent for change.

So it was interesting to receive the message below, recently posted on a local mailing list.

———————————————————————–
In 2019 the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA), which underpins the native forest industry in our region, expires. We understand that government preference is for an automatic rollover with no public consultation. We consider this to be unacceptable.
On Sunday June 11 at the Tathra hall, we will be holding a forest forum which is an initial step in promoting the message that there are better uses for our native forests than woodchipping. Local environmentalists have been developing alternative forest strategies and the time has come for wider community involvement.
You will receive a more detailed notice of June 11 proceedings closer to the day. In the meantime, we ask that you flag the date and mention it to friends.
David Gallan
Tim Taysom
President Vice-President
National Parks Association (Far South Coast Branch)

The NPWS is continuing its inane broad-acre burning, blotting out the sun and polluting the atmosphere for the past two weeks. Most recent is a 260 hectare burn in the Wapengo catchment, also in an area with recent koala records.

The subtle but perhaps important difference on this occasion, is that the records come from surveys funded by the federal government. According to the interim working plan for the flora reserves, the federally funded surveys found black she-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis), is one of the most abundant species. The reason for this outcome probably stems from the decision to increase the diameter of trees measured in the koala plots,from 100 mm to 150 mm. If 100 mm minimum had been retained, it seems likely the surveys would confirm black she-oak are the most abundant species in most of the reserve. 

While credible science tells us burning does not provide leverage over wildfire in this bio-region. The data employed is from eucalyptus forests, as opposed to the generally heavily logged and burned forests in the reserve. Accordingly the volume of fuel is reported as 16.4 tonnes per hectare, with fine fuels making up about 2 tonnes per hectare or 200 grams per square metre.

In the photo below is a black plastic bag filled with one square metre of fine fuel from under black she-oaks. Minus the bag it weighs 5660 grams, just over 28 times the weight of fine fuel in eucalyptus dominated forest. Not surprisingly this level of fuel greatly adds to the smoke and the CO2 produced from the fire. In this case, rather than the notional 32.8 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, the fire is likely to produce 142 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. NSW annual emissions per capita are around 19 tonnes CO2. So every 100 hectares burned equates to the annual CO2 output from 747.4 people.

Yesterday I received a response from Minister Upton, pasted below, regarding my request for NPWS contact details about the fence and catchments. While it’s expected that the NPWS would readily accept the Forestry Corporation’s version of events. I can’t find any reference to illegal encroachments, fences or investigations in the flora reserve working plan. So I wonder if there may be another non community version of the plan, circulating in state government departments

As for the Bega Valley Shire Council being the most appropriate contact about catchment issues. Mike Saxon is also the contact for a recently advertised OE&H position for a ‘Senior Team Leader – Water, flood plains and coast’, for the far south coast. So it possible that the NPWS and the OE&H are yet to employ someone that does catchments.

Only because I found the job description interesting, details for the position are at iworkfor.nsw.gov.au, job reference- 000057WJ, and applications close Monday 15 May 2017 11.59 pm.

 

Dear Mr Bertram

I refer to your email to the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Gabrielle Upton MP about your biodiversity reconstruction project on the NSW far south coast. Your email was referred to the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and I have been asked to reply.

Thank you for your interest in the biodiversity of the far south coast. Before your proposal to trial biodiversity reconstruction can be considered for endorsement, there is an issue with the location of the fence that needs to be resolved. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) have advised that the Forestry Corporation of NSW did not approve the construction of the portion of the fence on State Forest that is now part of the Murrah Flora Reserves. As part of the handover of the management of the flora reserves from Forestry Corporation to NPWS, the fence was identified as an illegal encroachment onto the Reserve. In the Murrah Flora Reserves Interim Working Plan the fence is identified for investigation. In the first instance, the Director South Coast Region (NPWS), Kane Weeks would be the most appropriate person to contact regarding the status of the fence and to consider your proposal to use the area for fauna reintroductions. The most appropriate contact about catchment issues is Bega Valley Shire Council.

The Murrah Flora Reserves Interim Working Plan can be found at http://www.forestrycorporation.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/669281/Interim-working-plan-for-Murrah-flora-reserves.pdf

If you have any further questions about this issue, please contact Kane Weeks, Director South Coast Region, Park Operations on 02 4423 2170 or at Kane.Weeks@environment.nsw.gov.au.

MICHAEL SAXON

Director

South East Branch

As reported in the Narooma News this week, the NPWS recently held a workshop near Bermagui on making seed balls. The report quotes “National Parks’ senior threatened species officer and local koala expert Chris Allen” suggesting “ . . . This workshop we are holding at The Crossing is looking at a few different approaches that we are taking to support the rehabilitation of preferred koala feed trees in the coastal forests here between Bermagui and the Bega River”.

Previous government funded approaches taken at the Crossing were based on the notion that primary koala browse species would readily grow, but they didn’t. Hence now the attempt is to try and grow some preferred secondary feed species.

According to the google god, rehabilitation is ‘the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition.’ In the real world it’s a good idea to gather an understanding of the former conditions so, in this case, the environment can be restored. Regrettably, developing this understanding is not on the government’s agenda, so the seed ball trial will also fail.

Also in the real world and as indicated in map below, the NPWS’ hot burn in Cuttagee was in an area with recent koala records.

 

These particular records are dated 2010 and when located, they put a halt on the Forestry Corporation’s proposal to log part of the area now burned.

While logging is perceived to be a bigger threat to koalas than fuel reduction burning. I doubt whether anyone involved would have wanted to be up a tree on that day, with the fire coming in from all sides. Pity about any koalas in that position.

Clearly the burn is sending a strong signal about the NPWS’s ongoing bloody minded approach to koala habitat management on the coast. However, It does appear to contrast with Chris Allen’s recent statement, in his information piece ‘Dieback and potential implications for koalas“.

There is no reference to dieback on the coast, but he suggests “On behalf of the Koala Steering Committee we are keen to support an integrated approach to monitoring, research and management responses. ” for dieback on the tablelands.

Allen also comments on the bark eating habits of the tablelands koalas indicating -This feeding strategy by koalas not reported elsewhere. While this may be the case, translocated genetic ‘bottle-neck’ koalas have killed trees in many locations. Based on the extent of chewed bark in the photo below, also from Allen’s information piece, this tree may not have much time left.

No doubt making the most of over-time rates, this morning (Sunday) the NPWS lit up six hundred hectares in the Murrah Flora Reserve. According to the Rural Fire Service it is not a planned burn and the ‘Fires near me” map  suggests the fire is in the Mumbulla section of the reserve. However, the 50 kilometer smoke plume is actually emanating from an area some 15 kilometers north of the RFS location, in the Cuttagee catchment.

As indicated in the photo below, at a corner of Murrah River road, it is difficult to describe the burn ‘patchy’.  Rather, it appears to be quite a hot burn, consuming all ground cover in this location. While a visit in a few days will be required, I expect the fire will kill many of the forest oaks in the area and scorch the canopies of eucalyptus, particularly regrowth trees.

While some of us have become accustomed to forest mismanagement, the fact that this burn comes so soon after the report on Cuttagee catchment, is a little disturbing. Is this the NPWS’s management response to the dozens of erosion points identified in the catchment report? If so, where is the scientific evidence confirming burning will not exacerbate these erosion problems?

Then there is the so-called Murrah Reserve steering committee, allegedly established to facilitate community consultation and draw up another interim management plan. There has been no information from this committee, but if it agrees with the burn, it seems reasonable to assume ESFM is clearly not a consideration.

 

If one were looking for advice on forest management, the tablelands, where 2,000 square kilometers of eucalyptus woodland has died, may be a better option.  In particular a document titled  ‘Introducing some key management principles for restoring Box Gum Grassy Woodlands’ (Stol, J., 2016).

A quote from the paper indicates ” . . . Australia has largest truffle diversity of any continent with approx.1,500 – 2,000 species of an estimated 5000 spp
worldwide
 Eucalypts and many other members of the Myrtaceae are highly dependent on mycorrhiza formation for survival and growth.
 Mycorrhizal fungi assist plants to repel parasitic organisms, obtain limiting soil nutrients, and ameliorate adverse soil conditions and severe climatic conditions by improving water relations
 sites that have been cleared for grazing or degraded may be depleted of these important fungi.

The paper raises the question  – “Truffle presence was found by Stol and Trappe (2010) to be negligible in paddock trees. Are high nutrient levels, damage to the network of fine roots near surface and resulting lack of truffles one of the less recognised background issues contributing to dieback?

In addition ‘Truffles need good soil moisture and leaf litter (ie. ‘mulch’)’  and logically the native species to spread their spores. If we are to believe the NPWS forests don’t need truffles or animals.

Both of them can’t be right.

 

 

The Bega District News recently reported that forests from Ulladulla to Eden, are one of 18,000 areas worldwide recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. The report coincides with the start of the NSW government’s broad acre forest burning season. After all, if one has a biodiversity hot spot logging and burning it are a priority.

Currently there are thousands of hectares burning, mostly to ‘reduce fuel loads’. Regrettably the fact that there is no science confirming burning reduces the chances of, or the intensity of a wildfire is seemingly lost on forest managers and the Rural Fire Service.

One of the areas proposed for burning is Bournda National Park, about 20 km south of here. In this case the NPWS plan to burn 600 hectares, about one quarter of the park area. According to NPWS area manager Stephen Dovey, the burn, north of Wallagoot lake, aims to ‘reduce fuel loads and reinvigorate native plants dependant on fire in their life cycle’.

However, the Bournda NP Management Plan, indicates ” . . . Much of the forest of the park and reserve was logged and regularly burnt prior to reservation and there are few large trees. The most intensively affected area was north of Wallagoot Lake, where species such as tree ferns have been largely removed and in places dense stands of Allocasuarina have replaced eucalypts. Protection from frequent fire will be important in encouraging return of these areas to a more natural condition and improvement of their habitat value (see section 4.1.4).”

Burning Allocasuarina stands, or adding disturbance to disturbance, is unlikely to encourage the return of these areas to a more natural condition. A more likely outcome will be an increased potential for wildfire, crown burning in the few remaining large trees and a new crop of Allocasuarina.

 

Earlier this year former forester and burning advocate Vic Jurskis, wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Too Many Koalas, Too Little Science’. While in this case he suggests radio collaring and tracking koalas around here will provide more information than the long term surveys. Vic’s main argument is that koalas are every where and regular burning is required to keep forests healthy and koala numbers down.

Vic suggests “ . . . Ecological research, environmental legislation and land management should be based on an appreciation of ecological history.” While I tend to agree with this statement, missing from Vic’s koala argument is the fact that the history of translocating ‘island’ koalas to locations in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and the ACT, has led to very different outcomes in different locations. 

At this location Vic indicates ” . . . I searched the area with fellow conservationists and members of South East Timber Association, Peter and Kerry Rutherford. In a short space of time, Kerry spotted a female koala with a joey on its back, clinging to a coppice stem growing from a cut stump in 35-year-old regrowth forest. I found no sign of koalas in a stand of old growth forest on the other side of the road. However, the old trees and the regrowth trees were all very conspicuously declining in health and their roots were smothered by dangerously heavy fuel loads of litter, shrubbery and fallen timber. The local population of koalas is clearly in a phase of irruption and is destined either for decline or for sudden destruction by wildfire.”

As Peter Rutherford is a member of the OE&H’s flora reserve management team, I’m expecting to see plumes of smoke any day now.

Lastly the photo taken last night, is a young wombat that has taken to digging large holes under the orchard fence, even after I put a wombat gate in for it. Thankfully on this occasion it used the gate for its entry and exit.   

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